By Taylor Lowery
The group exits onto the tarmac and breathes in the Malawian air. When we enter the airport, there was lovely jazz playing and a friendly vibe. As we walked out of the scramble of luggage I was frightened as a man grabbed at the cart of bags I was assigned and started walking away with it. From behind I was being yelled at “keep hold of your cart” but I couldn’t understand why. We were following our guide and I thought he must be working for Praxis Malawi. With the yelling still happening directed towards me I grabbed hold with one hand and kept hold until the end. After the short walk to the van, he asked for a tip and of course I had no Malawian currency yet and therefore nothing to give. A minute and a half out of the airport and already my first lesson: In a developing country, kind gestures are not solely purposed for kindness. They simply cannot afford to be.
The 2 hour drive to The Campus was a whirlwind of emotions. The window was down, and the air felt fresh after the cabin air on the flight. The ebb and flow of vans and transport trucks passing each other, the honking, the street walkers and vendors, the bikes holding more people and goods than would be legally allowed in North America. My stomach was still a little scared from the altercation at the airport but I decided to slowly allow myself to ease into the environment, and to my pleasant surprise began to really see everything in a more beautiful light. The smiles, the fabrics of colourful patterns, the little waving hands and pointing fingers saying “hey, white people!” were even a charming occurrence. I found each doubled bicycle ride, the balanced baskets and buckets on well trained heads, the gathering of friends and families, and the small babies poking out from behind their mothers or sisters- beautiful. The playing, the laughing, oh it looked like so much fun. Even the extreme amount of responsibility for people of all ages seemed fun. Back home the only thing a 12-year-old would be responsible for is maybe taking their chiwawa for a walk. Here 12 year olds were in charge of whipping their 4 oxen home. How cool is that?
This beautiful collection of people and activities was in the foreground of a splendid backdrop of dried vegetation between tracks of caramel dirt roads. The escarpments in the distance looked like they had gigantic leafy green ants marching across the top and spilling down the sides. Colonies scattered in parts and bunched in others. The horizon displayed a naval brigade in the blue ocean sky. The white, fluffy ships were varying in size and shape, some heavier and more important than others but together commanded a presence- striking fear and awe all in one moment.
We pulled off the pavement and onto the dirt road and we knew we were close. Greeted by running children behind the van, singing woman and cheerful men- the experience was unanimously overwhelming for me and my classmates. We stood there shaking hands, unable to communicate but smiling. One member of the group finally had the idea to bring out a soccer ball and this was greeted by a course of cheers. Together we were entertained, learning names, running around in the most energizing, organized chaos I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. Soon the sun started to set and all the Canadian students took a second, looking up at this fantastic purple and pink sky. The children had seen it a million times and were not interested in stopping one second of play to admire the beauty.
I was suddenly overcome with how stereotypical my current state was in the 5 step process of culture shock, outlined and discussed in this course extensively (Pedersen, 1995). I was smack dab in the middle of the honeymoon phase described as a general playful excitement and overall sense of euphoria (Pedersen, 1995). Interestingly I could totally pin-point the exact moment this feeling had evolved. In the van, in the attempts to protect myself from the fear and shock residing in my stomach, I made a deliberate choice to change the fear into positive curiosity. This stage is a defense mechanism.
I suddenly felt unsure of my place, here in the football field, kids looking up at me, the colour of my skin entertaining enough. I stood back and decided to wait my feelings out. Maybe tomorrow I would have a better idea of what I was doing here.
Pedersen. P (1995). The five steps of culture shock: Critical Incidents around the World. Wesport, (Greenwood Press)
About the Blog
Since 2013, students participating in Transformative Praxis: Malawi have been writing blog posts reflecting on their experiences of participating in action research in Malawi. The original blog with the full archive can be found here